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The Wandering Earth (2019) – Movie Review

(gained a half-cup due to awesome visuals and a guy trying to shoot a planet)

Written by: Frant Gwo, Gong Ge’er, Wu Yi, Yan Dongxu, Yang Zhixue, Ye Junce & Ye Ruchang, based on the novella by Liu Cixin
Directed by: Frant Gwo
Starring: Qu Chuxiao, Wu Jing, Zhao Jinmai, Ng Man-tat, Li Guangjie

It’s the future, and not only do we (apparently) still not have jetpacks, but the Sun is going to expand and engulf the Earth in a hundred years. To add insult to injury, a couple centuries after that, it will have swallowed the rest of the solar system as well. Because mankind can get its act together when there’s some massive, obvious, world-shattering threat (and pretty much only then), humanity forms a world government with a focus on saving the planet and (most) of the people on it. To do this, they plan to spend a couple of millennia moving the Earth to a new solar system. You might think is a plan fraught with peril–and you’d be right–because Murphy’s Law (and the Law of Disaster Movies) says that Something Big goes wrong. And hoo boy, does it.

The Wandering Earth posterOkay, so…it’s no secret that I greatly enjoy the film Independence Day. The reason is that I saw it for what it is: an Irwin Allen disaster movie. Irwin Allen brought you classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. It’s a simple recipe. Get a relatively large cast of characters, establish them a bit, then throw a terrible situation at them and see what happens. That’s the Irwin Allen method. I thought that after ID4, someone would need to up the ante to some galaxy-wide, ludicrous extent to better the scale of that.

This is exactly what director/co-scribe Frant Gwo has done here. The premise is completely batshit insane. I have so many questions about what would be and would not be possible in such a scenario. In fact, the whole thing is so utterly bonkers, it threatens to take you out of the film. Here’s the thing, though: it never quite succeeded in yanking me away. This is partly because you do have a cadre of characters who are entertaining enough to make you curious as to who’s going to bite the big one, but mostly because the cinematic world they’ve created is so damn thoroughly constructed. The very first time we meet Liu Qi (our lead, played by Qu Chuxiao), he’s in his living quarters (which we see all of just that one time) and it looks amazing. If you want a master class in how to make a science fiction world feel lived in, here you go. Also, the costumes are incredible. For example, the military spacesuit-exoskeletons look like Edge of Tomorrow having sucked down a steroid smoothie.

One of the benefits of having a worldwide disaster is you can easily hit almost all of the disaster movie tropes. Do you need a building on the edge of collapse? We got that. Do you need crazy random earthquakes complete with falling rocks? Yup, got it. And you add to that the benefit of a completely lethal environment on the surface of the Earth (because it’s damn cold out there) and it’s Cataclysm Gold!

This brings us to some of the film’s few stumbling points. First, you do have a worldwide disaster. So I wanted the film to take more advantage of that. Not that I expect a Chinese film to do a lot of focus on non-Chinese characters (I mean, have you seen a lot of American cinema?) but I would have liked even a broader cast of Chinese characters that then wind up coming together (as they always do in such films). And when you do talk about a worldwide, multi-national cast, they do a pretty good job of involving everybody in the action. And it…seems a little subversive coming out of China, I must admit. So good for them.

Also–and I admit this may be a normal thing in Chinese cinema that I’m just unfamiliar with–many times, people suddenly have a brief monologue either right before or right after they’ve died. It wasn’t always clear if they were actually speaking this where someone could hear them or not.

The Wandering Earth: massive takeoffThe only other problem would be the science of it, but if you know what you’re signing up for, then you’re probably going to go with it. Because once you accept the initial premise, most of what follows is easily digestible.

Qu Chuxiao makes for a good lead we can get behind, and Zhao Jinmai plays his younger sister, who you think might turn out to be an obnoxious character but pulls back before we get to that point. Ng Man-tat makes for an excellent cantankerous patriarch as well. And as is the way of this genre, everybody gets Their Moment.

It does absolutely nothing to reinvent the genre, but it shows that Chinese cinema can play the game alongside everybody else. It’s visually stunning and ridiculous, and I wish I had gotten a chance to see it on the big screen. However, it’s available on Netflix, and you should catch it there.